Once upon a time, my friend Ruchi and I invented a game of planetary teleportation. We yelled out the name of a planet and pretended we could teleport to it. The solar system was a grid of beige four-storied buildings with a big park as the sun, and anything that stood out—the majestic banyan tree too old to be cut without remorse, the local Mother Dairy with mint green exterior walls our maids frequented with their canisters, the platform that had remained after a family with a ground floor flat had to demolish the walls of their expansion fearing a code inspection—was Mercury through Pluto. Of course, we didn’t really teleport; we simply ran to the ‘planets’. The one who reached first was the winner, earning the right to point at their opponent and shout, “rocket crash!”
There was one unspoken rule: don’t go beyond the gates. If we did go out and cross the main road, we’d find ourselves in the village that had been consumed by our locality. The one time when, consumed by adventure, we’d try to sneak past the sleeping security guard at the gate, Ma’d spotted me on the way back from the high school across the main road she taught at. Ruchi was spared but Ma pulled me back into the neighborhood by my ears, followed by a screaming fit about her fears and the value of obedience and all that, further followed by a long hug because she was relieved she’d caught me.
One day, Ruchi and I stopped our game in Saturn, the courtyard flanked by four buildings. End-of-play fatigue had silenced us, and we caught our breaths looking up at the balconies and clotheslines.
I was the one who first laid eyes on the stranger: a dark-skinned woman with long grey hair, tied in a plait going down to the top of her thigh, and teeth so crooked each one looked at war with the others. I nudged Ruchi, and she took a step closer to me, her pudgy arm touching mine. The woman saw us, smiled and stopped in her tracks. She beckoned us with her long fingers, and as if in a trance, we walked up to her. She gave us two small toffees and patted Ruchi on the top of her head. Then, she left.
We couldn’t look away from her retreating figure, morbidly transfixed by her unusual feet.
“Her feet are backwards,” I muttered, because that’s how my brain read the image. The woman’s backwards feet, along with her long plait and long fingers, added up to her being just like the witches from the underworld in my grandmother’s tales. Just like the witches in everybody’s grandmother’s tales.
We went home holding hands, only parting at the doorstep of Ruchi’s second floor flat, and I yelled for my mother to turn on the light above our front door before I dared trek the one floor between Ruchi’s flat and mine. I still had occasional fits of being a scaredy cat in the darkness, so my mother didn’t think to ask questions.
The next day, during evening playtime, we were surrounded by the familiar faces and feet of our neighborhood again, and it was as though the woman who looked nothing like us had just been a figment of our imagination. I mean, nobody really looked like that, did they?
That weekend, Sandeepa Hooda had her birthday party. She was a bit older than us, and we were flattered to be invited, expecting excitement. It turned out to be tame as far as birthday parties went, organized at home by her parents and dadi instead of having the event outsourced to an amusement park or McDonalds. Seven girls, including me and Ruchi, and two boys (Sandeepa’s cousins; this was before boys and girls became friends) came over, and her mother made her blow her candles and cut her cake before serving us chhole-kulcha and bread pakoras for dinner, which meant they wanted to get the hard part out of the way. We were free to play after dinner, and Sandeepa took us to her room.
“Don’t you have party games?” said one of her cousins when Sandeepa arranged her Barbie dolls on her bed.
“There’s seven girls here. You have to play what we want,” spat Sandeepa through a missing front tooth.
“But what do we do with those anyways?” said the other cousin, lifting the skirt off of a Barbie with one leg.
“I have an idea! Let’s play dark room,” suggested Ruchi, holding up each palm before two sides of the argument with finality.
“Let’s!” said another girl, grabbing Sandeepa’s arm and giving it a tug, her eyes sparkling.
“I want to play dark room,” said the other cousin, jumping up and down.
Dark room was a game invented by somebody in our neighborhood way before our time, and had been passed down for years now. It was hide and seek with the lights off, heightened by our collective fear and fascination with the dark. Ruchi offered to be the first to seek. I hid myself between two cupboards and held my breath. I heard Ruchi running into furniture, struggling. Someone giggled under the bed, but Ruchi didn’t trace the sound. Maybe she was just scared, and the fear was muddling her responses to stimuli, lacing her movements with uncertainty.
That’s what gave me the idea to give her an extra fright. When I felt Ruchi close to me, I whispered, “What if the witch comes here?”
And that was it. I had expected a nervous giggle, or a demand to turn the lights back on, but Ruchi screamed like the it was the witch herself that had whispered, and it started a chain reaction with the others. By the time Sandeepa’s mother came to check in on us, Ruchi was bawling her eyes out. “The witch has backwards feet!” she said. “And she gave us something to poison us! She roams about the neighborhood and she wants to kidnap us!” And on and on it went till all the other kids were shivering, including me. My mind had filled in blanks in the story of the woman with the strange feet, till it wasn’t a just story anymore. My fear magically became as real as Ruchi’s accusations against the old woman were unsubstantiated.
I didn’t tell my parents or my sister about the witch, though. At home, I guarded the story, always carrying a knot in my stomach. As much as I feared the witch, I feared the myth of her being taken away from me even more.
Ruchi and I continued to play together, but now, some people from the party and their friends wanted to join us from time to time. Our games grew riskier. One day, we pretended an abandoned ground floor flat with a broken back door was a haunted house, and ventured into its eerie emptiness while simultaneously swallowing our fright. And then there was the time when we turned playing house into a macabre endeavor, with a girl being assigned the role of a witchy kidnapper trying to take our child, thrilled when the witch player made faces or made up spells. When we got tired, Ruchi and I told the story of meeting the witch.
“We took her toffees and we fainted! We woke up the next day.”
“Her teeth were too big for her face. Two of them are so pointy!”
“She carried a big bag to stuff children in.”
Nobody questioned the plot holes and the obvious and continuous escalation in the retelling of a five minute event.
I wasn’t long before our new play group wanted to see the courtyard where we had met the witch. We agreed. It was around the same time of the day when we had first encountered the mysterious old woman, but somehow, I didn’t expect her to show up again. We led the way and waited on site. Every part of my body was on fire, and my heart was hitting my ribcage in efforts to jump out.
And then, there she was. We froze. My eyes made a beeline for her feet. Still strange, just like our grandma’s tales. She smiled, obviously delighted at the sight of so many children in one place. Just like the last time, she began to fish out toffees from her small purse, and approached us with toffees in her palm, her smile widening beyond her too long incisors.
She was a few feet away when the panic began. It started with one girl—I don’t remember which—running away, crying, “Mummy! Mummy!” Then, the other followed. Some tried to hide desperately in folds of the buildings surrounding us, digging their bodies into the walls, possibly hoping to dissolve into the plaster for protection. Ruchi and I stood silent and trembling, with Ruchi holding my arm.
The woman looked around, and her smile turned upside down. A tear escaped her eye. She dropped the toffees to the ground, and said in a croaky voice, “Please don’t be scared. Please.”
And then she left.
There was something about her tears that stomped on my heart and left a footprint. Something was wrong. It was my first time seeing such unadulterated sorrow, and even as a child, I knew that unlike our scintillating stories and fabricated fear, it was real. And I didn’t know what to do with it.
I can’t say what happened to Ruchi following the incident, but I’m sure the other children were genuinely traumatized. From their point of view, the horror story had suddenly come true. I didn’t understand their psychology at the time, but I did notice that fewer kids in the neighbourhood had come out to play, and those who did ran home before dusk.
However, just like everything else, the witch was forgotten soon, and normal play resumed. I didn’t see the woman again, and stories about her were now avoided.
I think it was months later, when I was about to change schools and needed to get re-vaccinated, that the memory of the witch sprang back up. We were in the car, Baba driving, ma in the passenger seat, and Didi and I in the back.
“Is the needle very big?” I asked.
“Not very,” said Ma.
“There used to be something big back in my day,” said didi, eight years my senior. She rolled up her sleeve and showed me a circular mark on her skin. “You don’t have this. They got better vaccines by the time you were born.”
“What disease is it for?” I asked, running my finger on the circle of bumpy skin.
“It’s for things like smallpox and measles and mumps all that,” said didi. “And polio. But I think they feed the babies the polio one. It’s a drop of some kind.”
“What’s polio?” I had never heard the word before.
That was when my sister told me about the disease which often deformed feet. I don’t know how the pieces of the puzzle fit. I just remember they did. Suddenly, the strange woman simply happened to have long hair, like many elderly women, her long fingers were actually pretty elegant, and her feet weren’t backwards but deformed in a way that was probably painful to her, but still completely human. Her image changed in my mind in an instant, and I knew I had lied with the crushing guilt of the Himalayas on my back. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do now.
Who was that woman? I found myself asking this question in unoccupied moments.
The answer was simple—she was our neighbor. We didn’t live in a solar system, ruling it as earthlings. We lived in a galaxy where the aliens had always been. We had one rule—we didn’t go past the gates. That didn’t mean people from past the gate couldn’t come in. It wasn’t easy infiltration. They were still villagers after all, their roads made the passing of a tiny Maruti 800 look like the passing of a giant. They had no room for trees and flowers. They had cows in their tiny front yards which they set free when the milk ran out and even worshipped on certain days. They left their doors open and one could see six people to a room, the old expansiveness of their homes now suffocated by us closing in on them. The womens’ faces were sometimes covered behind a veil. The men often roamed shirtless. Their clothes were tired, their shoes fighting for another day, their gaudy jewelry struggled to fit with the rest of them. But they were our neighbors, the skin between us more porous than I imagined at seven. Poor woman—poor kind-hearted woman who gave sweets to children–was probably just visiting our temple. They didn’t have a big one.
I tried to reverse the damage we had done. Ruchi was still my friend, and one day I brought up the witch to her again. “Maybe she was a good witch,” I said. “Like a fairy godmother or something.” She wasn’t interested in this version. The woman hadn’t been aesthetically gifted enough to play the good witch.
After that, I was never able to lie again, or at least lie about someone else. If the idea ever crossed my mind, I always pictured the poor old woman with tears in her eyes, and she’d always say, “I know what you did. I know what you’re like.”
About The Author
Shreyonti Chakraborty is an Indian writer and architect currently pursuing a PhD in the US. Her short fiction has been published in Eclectica, Queen Mobs’ Teahouse, and Bandit Fiction. Her journalistic works have appeared in Hindustan Times.
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